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How Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can help us understand trauma

Contributed by
May 16, 2019

“There's no way you can go through a trauma like that and not come out of it changed." - Agent May

We all experience trauma at one point or another in our lives. Usually, trauma symptoms are likely to dissipate over time. However, in some cases, they may intensify, sometimes leading to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD does not only occur in service members. It can occur in anyone — whether it's a result of a direct exposure to a physical trauma (maybe an assault, illness, or an accident), emotional trauma (things like emotional abuse or gaslighting), or indirect exposure (such as learning about terrible occurrences happening to other people).

People with PTSD might experience all or some of the following: nightmares, flashbacks, mood changes, increased startle response, avoidance of reminders of the trauma, avoidance of social interactions, and being triggered by reminders of the trauma. In order for someone to be diagnosed with PTSD, they would need to exhibit these symptoms for over one month.

After experiencing a trauma or a tragedy, we might find it difficult to relate to others, especially if it seems that other people may not understand our experiences. However, many survivors turn to TV characters as a kind of a surrogate support system. Creating social connections with TV characters in this way has been shown to sometimes be helpful in reducing the feelings of loneliness. Ensemble shows, such as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., represent the very kind of TV shows that many of us are drawn to.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. takes place in the Marvel Universe and depicts the adventures of a group of federal agents tasked with protecting the Earth from alien threats. Most characters on the series experience some kind of a traumatic experience at one point or another. We learn from the Avengers that S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson was killed by Loki during the Battle of New York. The TV series later reveals that Agent Coulson was brought back to life under rather traumatic circumstances. Coulson frequently states that he should not have survived.

Many survivors who underwent a severe injury in a car accident, fire, or in combat, struggle with having survived a traumatic event. Certain reminders of their experience can potentially trigger and further intensify the survivor’s symptoms. This is apparent in Agent Fitz, who experiences oxygen deprivation when Ward, a Hydra agent and a S.H.I.E.L.D. traitor, throws him and Agent Simmons to the bottom of the ocean. After he experiences hypoxia (loss of oxygen to the body), Fitz, a brilliant engineer, struggles with hand-eye coordination, speech, and cognition.

Although some of these symptoms get better over time, the mental trauma of going through such a severe cognitive fog and fatigue might be difficult for some survivors to relay to others. A number of my own clients have reported that they feel a strong connection to Fitz due to his experiences of frustration over struggling to express himself and find the words that he is attempting to say. Upon watching the series, one of my clients, who was struggling with PTSD and post-concussive syndrome, said, “I feel a close connection to Fitz. I often can’t find the words to express myself, and everyone tells me to just be patient. Seeing his frustration helped to reduce mine. Seeing him heal gave me hope that my symptoms may get better over time, too.”

In addition to physical and emotional injury, some people might also struggle with a moral injury. Moral injury refers to having to take an action or being unable to take an action that leads to someone being harmed. Since harming someone else or being unable to save or protect someone might go against our moral code, we might experience guilt, shame, devastation, hopelessness, and helplessness, all of which may be symptoms of moral injury.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. provides great examples of courageous and powerful agents suffering after a moral injury, including Agents Melinda May and Daisy Johnson. Both agents take actions that inadvertently lead to someone getting killed, and both significantly suffer after the fact. For example, May actually ends up leaving her husband and changing her work responsibilities, whereas Daisy states that she does not deserve kindness or forgiveness for her actions. Both of these are examples of actions taken out of shame, when in reality neither May nor Daisy is at fault for what happened to them.

One way to take steps toward recovery from trauma and moral injury is to find meaning in one’s experience. On the show, when May, and later Daisy, focuses on defeating Hydra and protecting their fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, they appear to feel less guilty and display fewer trauma-related symptoms over time.

It appears that creating meaningful connections with real-life or fictional characters can help manage our trauma and loneliness symptoms, and that connection with a sense of purpose could reduce the feelings of hopelessness that we may develop in response to a moral injury.

Sometimes we may not be able to save the world, not yet. But we can create a ripple, which can grow into a waterfall. There is always hope and you have already made more of a difference than you can ever imagine. Thank you for making the world a better place.

If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis, call the suicide hotline: 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line: 741-741.

To find a mental health professional in your area, type in your zip code on Psychology Today.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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